Swift frames his discussion of epistemology and ethics in terms of nature, virtue and reason. To Swift, these principles are of equal import, but must also be placed in their natural order so as to achieve the proper balance between the three. Human nature (especially in contrast with other creatures) encourages each of us to subject the desires of flesh to those of mind. The uniquely human goal, then, is virtue; an excellence in thought and deed that is achieved not only by doing good, but by taking pleasure in it as well. Virtue, however, is impossible without the unique human capacity of reason, which in turn must be employed within the framework of man’s moral nature. So, for example, Swift employs an absurdity (a rational horse) in order to call man back to both the rational nature of man and the moral roots of rationality (IV.VII-VIII).
Education plays an extensive role throughout Gulliver’s Travels and is first seen in his account of the Lilliputians and their views on the family and education in the sixth chapter of Book I. There the narrator recounts that in their view, the family is defined primarily by its biological functions as opposed to natural affection. The relationship between parents and children therefore ends as soon as the child has lived “twenty moons.” At such a time the child is sent to a boarding school of sorts where they are prepared “for such a condition of life as befits the rank of their parents, and their capacities, as well as inclinations.” And since such an education is provided for the poor from public coffers, the greatest sin of poverty is reproduction: “For the Lilliputians think nothing can be more unjust, than for people, in subservience to their own appetites, to bring children into the world, and leave the burthen of supporting them on the public” (I.VI). Later in his tales, Gulliver recounts a similar sort of schooling among the Houyhnhnms (IV.VIII) and, in fact, attributes it to the very same cause: “They have no fondness for their colts or foals, but the care they take in educating them proceeds entirely from the dictates of reason” (IV.VIII, emphasis added).
It might at first seem that Swift’s intent is to recommend such a program for those in his own time, but the above quoted passage on the Lilliputians may well indicate otherwise when considered in light of Swift’s corpus, particularly A Modest Proposal. There, the author states that since no reform has yet succeeded in assisting the poor, the only ‘logical’ solution is to breed such children for human consumption, thereby reducing the number of the poor and contributing greatly to Ireland’s domestic trade. Swift’s sarcasm, however, then proposes (in a roundabout way) several other more sensible measures. Combine this with the king of Brobdingnag’s criticisms at the close of Book II (II.VI) and his clear distaste for the abstract and speculative philosophers of the academy at Lagado (II.V-VI), and it would seem that the accounts of education in Gulliver’s Travels are made in order to criticize such Spartan or utopian schemes and to instead foster education reform because of (rather than in spite of) traditional family and moral life.
For a more complete treatment of these issues, see the series, Horses, Yahoos and a Lesson in Humility (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).